Review: After the Ball at Upstairs at the Gatehouse

The aptly named Time Productions have set themselves an ambitious challenge in staging Ian Grant’s After the Ball, which covers several decades in the life of one family. Opening just before World War 1, it’s the story of William and Blanche, a young couple brought together by friends and shared political views, but with little else in common. Then, despite having spoken out frequently against the war, William voluntarily joins the army and heads to Belgium, where he falls in love with another woman. Back home, meanwhile, Blanche is left alone to raise their daughter, and even after he comes back she’s never able to forgive her husband for his betrayal.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

The play, directed by Nadia Papachronopoulou, opened on International Women’s Day, and at the start there are some promising discussions about votes for women that suggest we’re about to see a play with some strong female characters. And admittedly Blanche’s friend Margery, who chooses not to marry and later goes off to travel the world on her own, fits the bill – as does daughter Joyce, who grows up to be a leading light in the Labour Party and refuses to let a cheating husband get in her way.

Blanche, on the other hand, loses any independent spirit she once had the minute she gets married, spends their first few months together pleading with William not to go to war – and when he does, she ends up a sad, bitter woman stuck in a loveless marriage and unable to let go of the past. We don’t get to see how she copes without him because we’re in Belgium watching William, first getting wounded and then having an affair. On his return, any hope we might have that Blanche somehow gets the last laugh gradually fades as the same conversations and recriminations come up again and again. The result is, sadly, a script that becomes repetitive and characters that begin to feel a bit annoying; we even go back to the start of their marriage at one point in Act 2, for no obvious reason, to replay the argument again.

The same actors play the characters throughout their lives, which means in some cases they’re faced with the challenging task of playing both a 20-something and an 80-something. Stuart Fox is poignantly impressive as a fragile, elderly William, suffering with dementia and lost in fragmented recollections of his life – but both he and Julia Watson as Blanche struggle to differentiate clearly between their younger and older selves, and it’s down to the other characters and the historical context to help us locate where we are in the story. There is, however, a welcome injection of energy from Emily Tucker as Joyce, determined to live life on her own terms despite her mother’s disapproval, and Elizabeth Healey is a refreshing voice of reason as both Margery and Marguerite.

Photo credit: Mitzi de Margary

In a programme note, writer Ian Grant explains that After the Ball is “a story of resilience in the face of personal trauma … of political and social bonds that get stretched beyond breaking point … of female liberation and political emancipation”. That’s a lot to tackle in two hours, but unfortunately we never really get to explore any of it in much depth. Nor do we feel much connection to the characters – again, with the possible exception of Joyce – which means a twist ending has far less impact than it should. All in all, sadly After the Ball is an interesting idea that begins well but never quite delivers on its early promise.

After the Ball is at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 24th March.


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Review: The Dog Beneath The Skin at Jermyn Street Theatre

On the face of it, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s eccentric fairy tale The Dog Beneath The Skin bears little resemblance to the world we live in today – but scratch beneath the surface and there’s a strong note of political satire that can be read as a cautionary tale for the 21st century.

The play’s central character, unassuming English gent Alan Norman (Pete Ashmore), is picked at random for a quest: if he can track down his village’s missing heir Francis Crewe, he gets a share in the Crewe fortune and the hand of Francis’ beautiful sister in marriage. Which is all well and good, except Francis has been gone ten years, and Alan is far from the first to undertake this perilous search.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

Undeterred, our hero sets boldly off across pre-war Europe, accompanied by a dog from the village (Cressida Bonas) whose oddly human behaviour doesn’t seem to surprise or concern anyone. As they journey through fictional European nations that feel a million miles from the charm of rural England, they meet monarchs and prostitutes, lunatics and lovers, but find no trace of the missing Francis. Despondent, the pair return home to the village of Pressan Ambo – except it’s not quite how they remember it. (Side note: I was interested to discover, while researching the play, that Auden and Isherwood each wrote a different ending. This particular production uses Isherwood’s marginally more upbeat conclusion.)

To say that the play has a bit of everything feels like an understatement; I couldn’t pin it down to one particular style or genre if I tried. At times it’s laugh out loud funny, at others darkly ominous, and occasionally entirely baffling. In other hands it could have been a bit of a mess, but under Jimmy Walters’ direction, a competent and incredibly hard-working cast – some of whom play no fewer than ten characters each – ensure we remain entertained and interested throughout, even when we have little or no idea what’s actually going on.

As the only two actors to play just one role each, Pete Ashmore and Cressida Bonas give enjoyable performances as Alan and The Dog, but it’s the ensemble who really bring the play to life. I particularly enjoyed Edmund Digby Jones’ smarmy vicar turned dictator and Eva Feiler’s obsequious master of ceremonies, while Suzann McLean is compelling in brief appearances as a grieving mother, whose words of warning are dismissed by the villagers.

Photo credit: Sam Taylor (S R Taylor Photography)

The production makes maximum use of the limited space available, with one end of Rebecca Brower’s set devoted to a stage area that suggests a lot of what we’re seeing is merely a performance (it’s not what you say, it’s the way that you say it, etc). Scene changes are incorporated seamlessly into the action, while a recorded voiceover provides poetic narration to keep things moving along.

The Dog Beneath The Skin was first performed in 1936, as Europe faced head on the rise of fascism and the threat of World War 2. That dark period may now be the stuff of history books, but the disquieting reminder as the play begins and ends that “this might happen any day” forces us to consider if where we’re headed right now is really that different. It is without doubt a bizarre play and consequently might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the cast’s enthusiasm and the script’s underlying relevance make this a very worthy and welcome revival.

The Dog Beneath The Skin is at Jermyn Street Theatre until 31st March.

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Review: Foul Pages at The Hope Theatre

To quote the timeless classic Shakespeare in Love (not sarcasm, I love that movie): “Love, and a bit with a dog – that’s what they want.” Robin Hooper clearly subscribes to the same belief; his play Foul Pages has both – and Shakespeare too, though in this case it’s not him who’s in love but pretty much everyone else. Will, meanwhile, is more interested in refining his latest work, As You Like It, whilst fending off interference from the Countess of Pembroke, a fellow writer full of helpful suggestions, and from King James I, who’s become infatuated with one of the actors and insists that he be given the lead role. The purpose of the production is to charm the monarch into pardoning Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s days from execution for treason – but pleasing the king comes at a cost for more than one member of the company.

Oh, and there’s also a talking dog.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Ian Hallard appears as Shakespeare, but such are the scandalous goings on that for once the legendary playwright isn’t the centre of attention. As his all-male company is torn apart by jealousy, ambition and more than a little sexual tension, all Will can do is watch in bemusement and do his best to hold everything together, along with straight-talking maid Peg (Olivia Onyehara) and the king’s devoted Scottish bodyguard Mears (Jack Harding).

Meanwhile it’s the more flamboyant characters – Lewis Chandler’s shunned actor Alex, Clare Bloomer’s eccentric Mary, Countess of Pembroke, and Tom Vanson’s lovelorn King James – who take centre stage, each driven by their own desires to take potentially catastrophic actions. There’s poignant work from Thomas Bird and Greg Baxter as actors Rob and Ed (also Shakespeare’s brother), whose fledgling relationship is threatened by the king’s interference. And then there’s Chop the dog, played to scene-stealing perfection by James King, who’s not only got all the animal behaviours down but also gets the most laughs, with wry observations on the bizarre human behaviour going on around him.

Photo credit: LHPhotoshots

Though the action is set in 1603, director Matthew Parker gives the production a modern twist; the costumes are an intriguing mix of 17th and 21st century, and rapid scene changes are punctuated by loud music and flashing lights, creating a sense of urgency as the stakes become ever higher and events take an unexpectedly tragic turn. Rachael Ryan’s economical set allows us a glimpse of goings on both upstairs and downstairs at Wilton, while still somehow allowing enough room on the tiny Hope stage for nine people to come out and treat us to an energetic jig at the end of the show.

There’s a political detour in the plot that doesn’t quite fit – it arrives out of nowhere and is just as quickly dealt with and forgotten – but that aside, Foul Pages is a compelling and irresistibly entertaining tale of love, lust and theatrical ambition that may just make you see As You Like It, and Shakespeare himself, in a whole new light.

Foul Pages is at The Hope Theatre until 17th March.

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Review: Richard III at Temple Church

Antic Disposition certainly know how to make a good first impression. Temple Church, their home for the next two weeks, is another majestic, beautiful and powerfully historic setting for the company’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard III – and brings to an end their most recent tour of some of the UK’s most stunning cathedrals.

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring venue is more than matched by the quality of the show, which is utterly absorbing from start to finish. Based on the probably completely untrue history of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, the play recounts his bloody path to the throne as he gradually eliminates every other heir in his way, before being defeated at Bosworth Field by the future King Henry VII.

This modern interpretation reimagines the royal family and their entourage as well-heeled city types, and even without the little topical details – which include a comedy mayor called Boris, and a competitive handshake Donald Trump would be proud of – the point being made is clear. Our leaders may no longer send each other to the executioner’s block, but the ruthlessness of those who seek power for their own ends is just as dangerous today as it was 500 years ago.

At the head of a fantastic cast is Toby Manley as the murderous monarch, in a performance so charming that it’s easy to see how he keeps getting his way. Watching him, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Andrew Scott’s Moriarty in Sherlock; he plays his part so well that you can forget how evil he actually is – if not for the occasional furious outbursts that expose the crazed ambition lurking within. And in case that doesn’t do the job, a glance down the aisle reveals a silent army of vengeful ghosts, as each of Richard’s victims rises from the grave to take his or her place and wait for an opportunity to have their revenge.

This simple yet powerfully effective device from directors Ben Horslen and John Risebero not only helps keep track of the rising body count, but also contributes to the play’s sense of impending doom as we build towards a spine-tingling climax. And they’re not alone, as Louise Templeton’s Queen Margaret, draped in the flag of her dead husband and son’s royal house, appears regularly on stage like Hamlet’s ghost to ensure justice is done.

Perhaps surprisingly in a play so full of violence, there’s also a lot of humour, in the dramatic, semi-hysterical posturing of Joe Eyre’s Buckingham, who could be mistaken for a radical religious preacher as he makes the speech that secures Richard’s place on the throne. And Robert Nairne’s Catesby, who’s transformed for this production into a no-nonsense security man, enjoys some fun interaction with the audience as he hands out flags for the young princes’ arrival, before smugly presenting the two moody teenagers with an XBox to keep them quiet.

It’s clear from both the production and the directors’ programme notes that there’s a topical subtext to be found in Antic Disposition’s interpretation of Richard III. But this message is applied subtly enough – for the most part – that anyone who simply wants to see an excellent and very accessible production of Shakespeare’s historical play will find themselves more than satisfied. It takes some doing to put together a performance so gripping that it can distract from such an amazing venue – but while the setting certainly adds atmosphere, the true star of this show is the show itself.


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Review: Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain at Jermyn Street Theatre

There’s nothing we Brits love more than laughing at ourselves… except possibly laughing at Americans. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain from Fol Espoir and The Real MacGuffins has both of these things. It also has cricket, Brussels sprouts and a perfectly brewed pot of tea. It’s very funny if you’re British, possibly a little less so if you’re American, and I imagine fairly baffling to everyone else.

The premise is simple: a unit of American airmen, recently arrived in England during World War II, has had rather too much fun in the nearby village of Nether Middleton – resulting in a cat up a tree, the local policeman locked in his own cell, and a prize marrow stuck on the church spire. As compensation, they must apologise and help clean up, but also take a course in British culture, to foster friendship and cooperation with their new neighbours – all whilst preparing for a visit from “the President of London”, Winston Churchill himself.

You can probably imagine what comes next. Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek and frequently quite bonkers celebration of the many ways in which Brits and Americans are different – and the many, many ways that each nation’s way of life baffles the other. Think Dad’s Army with Americans, and you get the general idea.

It’s all inspired by a genuine pamphlet issued to American GIs in 1942 introducing them to the quirks and customs of British life, but that’s where the historical accuracy comes to an end – or at least I assume it does, otherwise I’m really not sure how we ever won the war. A few of the jokes are funny precisely because of the historical nature of the show and the benefit of hindsight; an oblique reference to the current resident of the White House goes down particularly well, as does the British lieutenant’s disdain for decimalisation as he launches into a hilariously convoluted explanation of pounds, shillings and pence.

Established comedy trio The Real MacGuffins – aka Dan March, Jim Millard and Matt Sheahan, who wrote the show with director John Walton – turn up with a variety of costumes and accents as, among others, a bullying American colonel, some German spies-in-training, a cricket-loving English lord and a randy Scottish pensioner. They’re clearly having a blast, and it’s impossible not to get caught up in their enthusiasm, or to admire their improvisation skills when the occasional curveball is tossed their way from the audience (cricket fans, please pardon the baseball pun).

Speaking of the audience, it’s worth mentioning – without giving anything away – that this is a show requiring everyone’s participation. The front row is a particular danger zone, but even those hiding at the back will have an opportunity to join in the fun, even if there isn’t really sufficient space to get involved properly (I’ll just leave that there for your imagination to mull over). But it’s all very good-natured and there’s no pressure on anybody to perform, so if you’re not a fan of participatory theatre, don’t let it put you off.

Like all the best comedy, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain is funny because it’s largely true, a joyous celebration of all those little oddities of which we Brits are secretly rather proud. Definitely one to check out in between drinking tea and talking about the weather…


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